The 20 Best TV Shows of 2012

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TV has never had more competition trying to keep you entertained. With streaming movies available on demand, videogames becoming more lifelike (and more mobile) and a library’s worth of books available for download, TV needed to step up its game to grab your attention. And while part of the reaction was to highlight the lowbrow and outrageous (Honey Boo Boo?), the other end of the spectrum is also getting attention. From smart comedies to gripping dramas, covering the minutia of life in America along with epic fantasy worlds, we bring you the 20 Best TV Shows of 2012. Let us know your favorites in the comments section below.

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20. Parenthood
Creator:   Ron Howard  
Stars: Craig T. Nelson, Peter Krause, Lauren Graham, Dax Shepard, Monica Potter, Erika Christensen, Sam Jaeger, Mae Whitman, Bonnie Bedelia
Network: NBC
Parenthood has always been a good drama, but this season it became a great one. The NBC series is palpably real. The Bravermans are us. Each week, the show provides insight into what it’s like to be part of an extended, loving and meddling family while giving viewers the opportunity for a nice cathartic cry. Family dramas are the hardest type of one-hour programming—they must keep viewers engaged without a weekly patient to cure, crime to solve or case to litigate. That’s why a family drama frequently will turn to the television trope of giving a lead character a disease. But what Parenthood has done with the Kristina (Monica Potter) story arc this season has been profound. The series thrives when it demonstrates the minutia of life. While Kristina has been battling breast cancer, she’s also been dealing with life’s smaller moments. Life, the show subtly points out each week, doesn’t stop for cancer. So often on TV, a disease will befall a character only to be wrapped up in one or two episodes after a few requisite maudlin moments. But Kristina is living with cancer and Potter is giving the performance of her career. She evokes empathy from the viewer while never allowing the viewer to pity Kristina. And while the Kristina’s cancer story arc has dominated the season, the show also has taken on some equally heavy topics. Amber’s burgeoning romance with a man who recently returned from Afghanistan. Julia’s struggle with secondary infertility and the decision to adopt an older child. Sarah’s attempt to blend her family with her young fiancée while dealing with her evolving feelings for her older boss. Parenthood has quietly become one of the best shows on TV.—Amy Amatangelo

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19. 30 Rock
Creator:   Tina Fey  
Stars: Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski, Jack McBrayer, Scott Adsit, Judah Friedlander, Alec Baldwin
Network: NBC
Of all the strong Thursday night sitcoms that NBC may or may not be laying to rest at the end of this season, 30 Rock is the only one whose exit seems just right. The Office hung on too long, while if the suits decide to axe Community after its fourth season, it’ll be an unjust cancellation of Arrested Development proportions. 30 Rock, however, is leaving us at the perfect moment: Liz Lemon and friends have been around the block long enough to show us all they’re capable of, but they’re bowing out while still on top of their game. The show has always been at its finest when it’s self-aware and biting the hand that feeds it, and there’s been plenty of that this year with the usual in-jokes and NBC spoofs (like Jack producing and starring in God Cop). However, 2012 has seen the show head into unfamiliar territory as Liz Lemon finally gets her happy ending, marrying Chriss so they can adopt a child. Last week’s episode expertly handled the wedding—with Liz doing it her way, at a courthouse in a Princess Leia outfit, and emphasizing that while it’s a special day for her, it’s not the be-all end-all. It’ll be sad to see this show go, but it’s refreshing to see a sitcom end on a high note for a change.—Bonnie Stiernberg

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18. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Creator: Madeleine Smithberg, Lizz Winstead
Stars: Jon Stewart, Jon Oliver, Samantha Bee, Aasif Mandvi, Wyatt Cenac, Jason Jones, Al Madrigal, Jessica Williams
Network: Comedy Central
Jon Stewart would be the first to tell you that relying solely on The Daily Show for news is a horrible idea. He’s a comedian first, but throughout the 2012 presidential election, that’s exactly what the world needed. Every week, Stewart uncovers the hypocrisies and fundamental problems with political figures and news organizations. He’s able to consistently bring humor into the darkness of the world’s news while showing an incredible intelligence and refreshing viewpoint that many times makes Stewart look like the most levelheaded individual sharing the news. Stewart and The Best F#@king News Team—boasting comedians like John Oliver and Wyatt Cenac—brilliantly covered the election in a way that showed the ridiculousness of the political system and somehow, made election coverage bearable. Poking fun at both Republicans and Democrats, along with the already comic nature of our world, makes Stewart not only one of our finest comedians but also one of the greatest modern political satirists.—Ross Bonaime

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17. Justified
Creator: Graham Yost
Stars: Timothy Olyphant, Nick Searcy, Joelle Carter, Jacob Pitts, Erica Tazel, Natalie Zea, Walton Goggins
Network: FX
There are two things you can count on every January: broken resolutions and the return of one of the best shows on television, FX’s Justified. It was easy to wonder if Margo Martindale’s Emmy-winning turn in Season Two was an unrepeatable stroke of luck, but with newcomers Mykelti Williamson and Neal McDonough delivering dazzling performances in Season Three, award-worthy guest stars appear to be the rule not the exception on this show. Combine that with the best ensemble on television (anchored by Timothy Olyphant, Walter Goggins and Joelle Carter), firecracker writing from show-runner Graham Yost with a dependable stable of wordsmiths, and the feature-film quality direction and cinematography from Francis Kenny, Michael Dinner and others, and what do you get? An instant classic that improbably translates Elmore Leonard’s twisted humor, Western deconstruction and damaged psyches into hour-long gems week after week after week. When people complain that there isn’t anything good on TV anymore, Justified is all you have to say to shut them up.—Jack McKinney

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16. Children’s Hospital
Creator: Rob Corddry
Stars: Rob Corddry, Malin Åkerman, Lake Bell, Erinn Hayes, Rob Huebel, Ken Marino, Megan Mullally, Henry Winkler
Network: Adult Swim 
Funnier than NTSF: SD SUV, less grotesque than Eagleheart and more consistent than The Eric Andre Show, Children’s Hospital remains the most absurd and (probably) the best of Adult Swim’s 12-minute live-action genre parodies. Of course it broadened its scope past the medical soap long ago, and this season the show riffed on Goodfellas, British dramas and a coked-up Law & Order. Children’s Hospital continues to weave surreal magic with one of the best casts on TV and talent that’s just as impressive behind the camera.—Garrett Martin

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15. Sons of Anarchy
Creator: Kurt Sutter
Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Katey Sagal, Mark Boone Junior, Dayton Callie, Kim Coates, Tommy Flanagan
Network: FX
Outside of a much-deserved Golden Globe for Katey Segal in 2010, Sons of Anarchy has been criminally underrated for awards. This longtime fan favorite has kept viewers on edge for five seasons now (the highly anticipated fifth season finale airs on Tuesday, Dec. 4) and has built a reputation for its no-holds-barred approach to its story. The current season saw a battle between Clay (Ron Perlman) after he was ousted as SAMCRO president as his stepson Jax (Charlie Hunnam) stepped into the role. The main cast continued their explosive dominance, but two season-long guest stars—Jimmy Smits and Harold Perrineau—really added something special to the mix. In a world where premium cable dramas rule the Emmys, this is one underdog that can take on any of them.—Adam Vitcavage

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14. Game of Thrones
Creator: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss
Stars: Sean Bean, Mark Addy, Michelle Fairley, Peter Dinklage, Emelia Clarke, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey
Network: HBO 
If there’s been a more ambitious show on TV—bringing a fantasy world to life, populating it with Machiavellian factions of scheming and double-crossing characters, adding an elaborate layer of myth and propelling the epic story forward each week—I can’t think of it right now. And while the first season of Game of Thrones often felt more like historical fiction than fantasy—if we could just imagine a history quite different than our own—it ended with dragons, and slowly more and more magic has been revealed. Winter is coming and more and more of Westeros’ fairy tales are coming true. But no monster or mythical creature can hold as much terror as the mortals who rule—especially an adolescent king with unlimited power. The real monsters of Game of Thrones need no magic to bring ruin upon others. The night is dark and full of terrors indeed. Maybe it’s not so unlike our own history after all.—Josh Jackson

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13. Boardwalk Empire
Creator: Terence Winter
Stars: Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon 
Network: HBO 
While it’s common for the quality of cable dramas to differ dramatically season-to-season, few have improved as much as Boardwalk Empire following the deaths of Jimmy and Angela Darmody. The show grew in scope during its third season, less concerned with the minutiae of New Jersey politics in favor of featuring a much more compelling national landscape. As a result, both its characters and its stories have become grander, more operatic and expressionistic. With its third season, Boardwalk Empire has found its voice, finally living up to the promise of its Scorsese-directed premiere.—Sean Gandert

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12. Doctor Who
Creator: Sydney Newman, C. E. Webber, Donald Wilson
Stars: Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill
Network: BBC America 
When Doctor Who lost Russell T. Davies, the showrunner who revived the series in 2005, and David Tennant, the 10th (and finest) Doctor, there was a little worry among fans. But new showrunner Stephen Moffat who had a number of British TV hits in Joking Apart, Coupling and Jekyll—and who more recently created Sherlock—has proved to be a fantastic choice for the 49-year-old series. He’d already written many of Doctor Who’s best episodes, and together with 11th Doctor Matt Smith, the series continues to be the most fun sci-fi show on television. The doctor’s unbridled enthusiasm for discovery and deep affection for his companions adds light even to the creepiest, darkest episodes. It occupies a world—campy but sincere, occasionally nightmarish but full of wonder—unlike anything else we’ve seen.—Josh Jackson

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11. Girls
Creator:   Lena Dunham  
Stars: Lena Dunham, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet, Adam Driver, Alex Karpovsky
Network: HBO 
From the series’ very first scene where Hannah Horvath pleads with her parents for money at dinner before being told she’s going to have to make it on her own, Girls served to define a certain generation of un- or under-employed post-collegiates. Filled with awkward sex scenes and petty blow-out fights, Girls was purposefully under-polished and was simultaneously praised and criticized—people loved it, hated it or just had no idea what to think about it. What no one could argue, though, was the show’s importance, both in portraying a particularly kind of twentysomething and for launching the career of creator, writer and star Lena Dunham, a name we’re sure to hear for years to come.—Ryan Bort


TV has never had more competition trying to keep you entertained. With streaming movies available on demand, videogames becoming more lifelike (and more mobile) and a library’s worth of books available for download, TV needed to step up its game to grab your attention. And while part of the reaction was to highlight the lowbrow and outrageous (Honey Boo Boo?), the other end of the spectrum is also getting attention. From smart comedies to gripping dramas, covering the minutia of life in America along with epic fantasy worlds, we bring you the 20 Best TV Shows of 2012. Let us know your favorites in the comments section below.

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10. The Walking Dead
Creator: Frank Darabont
Stars: Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal, Sarah Wayne Callies, Laurie Holden
Network: AMC
The enthusiasm for the The Walking Dead comes from more than just the gore (though there’s plenty) and the zombie head-shots (though some have been epic), but also the exploration of humanity under extreme duress. Last season, the peacefulness of the farm gave the characters a chance to pause, relax and wrestle with big (but not necessarily life-threatening) issues. It didn’t always provide for the most thrilling episodes, but it gave audiences a chance to invest more deeply in this group of survivors. Season 3 has been reaping those dividends. Picking up with the same energy where it left off in the Season 2 finale, The Walking Dead has hit its stride. The survivors are working together in synch, but they’ve got all new post-apocalyptic problems—alive and undead—to overcome. And we’ve got two new characters to respectively love and loathe—Michonne (Danai Gurira), the katana-wielding bad-ass with a pair of zombie pets on chains, and The Governor (David Morrissey), the charismatic, psychopathic leader of Woodbury, a quaint little Main Street USA in the middle of the zombie wasteland. Now that we’ve gotten to know all these characters, we just get to watch the stakes raised on a pair of new, amazing sets.—Josh Jackson

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9. Downton Abbey
Creator: Julian Fellowes
Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Jessica Brown Findlay, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Maggie Smith, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery ,Kevin Doyle
Network: PBS
Downton Abbey is never short on drama and general strife, and Season Two of this popular British export saw Downton and its inhabitants torn apart (and, in a few instances, brought together) by war, ravaged by a nasty Spanish flu outbreak and struggling to maintain the stiff upper lip expected of them. The ensemble series is extraordinarily well-acted (as evidenced by Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Joanne Froggatt, Jim Carter and Brendan Coyle all receiving Emmy nominations this year), and there’s perhaps no easier way to describe this year’s plot twists than “fucking nuts”—a term we strongly feel the saucy Dowager Countess would approve of. Amnesia? Yup. Temporary paralysis? Got it. Murder conviction? Oh, big-time. In less capable hands, season two’s story would’ve likely flown off the rails and veered into the completely ridiculous, but the talented cast of Downton Abbey handled it with aplomb, making for some of 2012’s most compelling television.—Bonnie Stiernberg

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8. Louie
Creator:   Louis C.K.  
Stars:   Louis C.K., Hadley Delany, Pamela Adlon
Network: FX
Louie’s third season places the now-beloved standup in situations that are just as unbearably human as ever, whether it’s discovering a quickly fading love in new character Liz or trying his hand (and disappointingly striking out) as a late-night host. Louie’s laughs are always cringe-worthy, but more often than not, it’s because C.K. makes it easy for the audience to step into his shoes. Mix the tough moments in with incredible guest stars—Jerry Seinfeld, David Lynch, Sarah Silverman, to name a few—and you’ve got a season that mixes laughs with true life lessons. The comedian also gets bonus points for putting the show on hold until 2014 to make sure he’s fresh for a stellar fourth run.—Tyler Kane

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7. New Girl
Creator: Elizabeth Meriwether
Stars: Zooey Deschanel, Jake Johnson, Max Greenfield, Lamorne Morris, Hannah Simone
Network: FOX
In 2012, New Girl went from adorkable show led by quirky Zooey Deschanel to one of the current great ensemble comedies on television. This year, it found its voice, making the guys of New Girl—Max Greenfield, Jake Johnson and Lamorne Morris—as much a focal point as Deschanel’s Jess, with great success. Finding humor in late-20s uncertainty, New Girl breathes new life into the sitcom in a way that hasn’t been seen since How I Met Your Mother, but without the romantic entanglement between friends that so many sitcoms before it have forced onto its stars. It’s also helped usher in a new brand of modern sitcoms, like The Mindy Project and Ben and Kate that have followed, taking the typical ensemble sitcom back by telling relatable stories, all with its own uniquely bizarre, yet hilarious voice.—Ross Bonaime

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6. Sherlock
Creator: Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Mark Gatiss, Rupert Graves
Network: PBS
One has only to look at the sterling track record of Steve Moffat to witness a showrunner god in the making. The guiding hand behind such English hits as Press Gang and Coupling, Moffat has gained the most attention for resuscitating Dr. Who into the Anglo-Saxon ambassador of science fiction. But Moffat and frequent collaborator Mark Gatiss transcended their best work with Sherlock, the BBC drama that hijacks Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic sleuth into the present with awe-inspiring intelligence and style. Calling Sherlock a television show is a tad deceptive, though; the series has produced two seasons consisting of three 90-minute episodes each. In other words, the Sherlock team has averaged a feature film every three months since the Summer of 2010. The immaculate second season dug deeper into the psychological fault lines of Holmes, played with sterile arrogance by Benedict Cumberbatch (or as Seth Meyers noted on SNL, the only man with a name more ridiculous than Sherlock Holmes). When the audience wasn’t trying to piece together the mystery of the week, we were finding fleeting clues to the guarded humanity of London’s finest “Consulting Detective,” usually to the chagrin of long-suffering accomplice John Watson (Martin Freeman) and volatile love interest Irene Adler (Lara Pulver). And though we’ll avoid spoilers, that was one helluva finale cliffhanger. With Freeman assuming the role of a certain hobbit next month and Cumberbatch facing off against the crew of the Starship Enterprise in J.J. AbramsStar Trek sequel, Season 3 of Sherlock has yet to go into production. Not a problem: this year’s “episodes” were anything but elementary, dense with twists, turns, and loose ends that demand a second viewing.—Sean Edgar

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5. Community
Creator:   Dan Harmon  
Stars: Joel McHale, Donald Glover, Danny Pudi, Alison Brie, Gillian Jacobs, Yvette Nicole Brown, Ken Jeong, Chevy Chase
Network: NBC
When Community began, it revolved around the story of a shallow, cynical lawyer who made it through life on looks and the ability to talk his way out of anything. But the show quickly grew a big ol’ heart as Jeff Winger opened his life to the random cross-section of humanity in his study group. A big part of that shift was an increased focus on Abed, one of the most original characters on television. His particular slice of the autism spectrum and sincere love of great pop culture isn’t just a cure for Winger’s cynicism, it’s a cure for us all. Sadly, this past season was the last with creator Dan Harmon at the helm. Here’s hoping the wonderful characters he left us with can continue to flourish when Season Four finally arrives in the spring.—Josh Jackson

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4. Homeland
Creator: Howard Gordon, Alex Gansa
Stars: Claire Danes, Damien Lewis, Morena Baccarin, David Harewood, Diego Klatenhoff, Mandy Patinkin
Network: Showtime
The second season of Homeland has taught us one very important lesson: Trust no one. Thanks to stellar performances by Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and Mandy Patinkin, Homeland’s sophomore season immediately secured the explosiveness that helped the show win Best Actor in a Drama Series, Best Actress in a Drama Series, and Best Drama Series at the Emmys for their shocking freshman season. Each episode of the new season is a whirlwind of complexity, with alliances switching at the drop of a hat. What continues to make this show so addictive is how deeply we are invested into seeing the good in these incredibly flawed characters.—Greg Eckert

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3. Mad Men
Creator: Matthew Weiner
Stars: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Jessica Paré, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Jared Harris, Bryan Batt
Network: AMC
Prostitution. Suicide. Divorce. Flashbacks, dream sequences and LSD trips. On paper, it sounds like the kind of stuff you’d encounter on a smutty soap opera, but Mad Men handled all of its sensational plotlines with grace and intelligence during its fifth—and best—season. We never thought we’d see a happily married Don Draper lose his passion for advertising (and, truth be told, if the last few episodes of the season are any indication, the old Don seems poised for a comeback), but the development of his character (as well as Lane’s tragic demise, Pete’s affair and Peggy’s departure from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce) took the show into uncharted territory. At the end of the season, he’s asked, “Are you alone?” and while the episode cuts to credits before he can answer, one thing’s for certain: This year of Mad Men stands alone as its finest.—Bonnie Stiernberg

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2. Parks and Recreation
Creator: Greg Daniels, Michael Schur
Stars: Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman, Aziz Ansari, Adam Scott, Rob Lowe, Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza, Rashida Jones
Network: NBC
Every season of Parks and Recreation seems to be more ambitious than the last, which makes it a rarity amongst sitcoms. Like its protagonist Leslie Knope, the show constantly yearns for progress and thrives on momentum and change rather than familiarity. But the strongest aspect of the show remains its deep characterization of Pawnee, Indiana, which goes beyond its core cast and into a Simpsons-esque repertory company of recurring characters. While their small town ideas are frequently the butt of Parks’ jokes, they’re also the heart of the show, and everyone who makes an appearance is there for more than just a cheap laugh. The show’s mixture of intelligence and affection remains unique in the normally cynical television landscape, a voice of cautious optimism that makes Parks not just the funniest show on television, it’s also the most heartfelt.—Sean Gandert

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1. Breaking Bad
Creator:   Vince Gilligan  
Stars:   Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, RJ Mitte, Giancarlo Esposito
Network: AMC
Call this The Age of the Antihero in television, as many of the best recent dramas are carried by characters whose moral choices are suspect at best—The Sopranos, Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men. In all those cases, though, the antihero is conflicted about the criminal world in which he lives (mobs, motorcycle gangs, ad agencies). Even Dexter’s title character is aware of his own psychopathy—the serial killer who wants to be a boy. It can be uncomfortable for the viewer when, week after week, the character that you’ve come to know, come to identify with and sympathize with, makes terrible moral choices. We squirm when we realize we’re cheering on a murderer, a gangster or a chemistry teacher who makes meth. With Breaking Bad, creator Vince Gilligan takes us on his character’s journey from protagonist to antihero, but doesn’t stop there. The once mild-mannered high-school chemistry teacher has left “antihero” in the dust. We’re now in villain territory. This is a five-season arc of a man becoming spiritually bankrupt. And yet it’s the best drama on TV since The Wire, in part because Gilligan surrounds Walter with a cast of deeply flawed but ultimately redeeming individuals, ensuring that the show never gets unmoored from its moral anchor.—Josh Jackson

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